Alexander Williams
Assistant Professor, Departments of Linguistics and Philosophy

1401-D Marie Mount Hall
University of Maryland / College Park, MD 20742 / (301) 405-1607
what's my email name?

"A great part of the work of a philosopher consists, or at least ought to consist, in a struggle against language." -Frege, 1924
"Is it not possible that the next century may see the birth, through the joint labors of grammarians, and numerous other students of language, of a true and comprehensive science of language?" -Austin, 1956

Research topic

Words often express relational properties. When a word is in a sentence, the relations it implies are sometimes associated with grammatical dependencies. But in general they are not. Grammatical valence is divorced from conceptual valence, to put it in a slogan. My research is about when and how implied relations do matter to grammatical structure, given this divorce. How does structure in sentences relate to structure in the thoughts we communicate in using them? I pursue this question through semantic and syntactic analysis of argument relations, explicit and putatively implicit, as well as through studies of their acquisition by infants, and online comprehension by adults. The idea that some arguments are implicit relates to a guiding interest in the division between semantics and pragmatics.

Research areas

Semantics: verbs, events, thematic relations, resultatives, implicit arguments, pragmatics
Philosophy: events, implicit content, philosophy of linguistics
Syntax: argument structure, complex predicates, syntactic theory, categorial and tree-adjoining grammars
Psycholinguistics: acquisition and processing of argument relations
Languages: Sinitic, Turkic, Tibeto-Burman, Igbo

Papers and presentations

Arguments in Syntax and Semantics (2015) [Amazon]
Cambridge University Press, "Key Topics in Syntax" series

Back cover overview:

"Argument structure - the pattern of underlying relations between a predicate and its dependents - is at the base of syntactic theory, and the theory of the interface with semantics. This comprehensive guide explores the motives for thematic and event-structural decomposition, and its relation to structure in syntax. It also discusses broad patterns in the linking of syntactic to semantic relations, and includes insightful case studies on passive and resultative constructions. Semantically explicit and syntactically impartial, with a careful, interrogative approach, Williams clarifies notions of argument within both lexicalist and nonlexicalist approaches. Ideal for students and researchers in syntactic and semantic theory, this introduction includes: a comprehensive overview of arguments in syntax and semantics; discussion questions and suggestions for further reading; a glossary with helpful definitions of key terms."


"This is a superb book, so much clearer than anything I have seen in many years. It will definitely make a mark in the discussion. The author has a remarkable command of both syntax and semantics and is able to provide simple and exact explanations. Anyone familiar with the literature on plurals in particular can only marvel at the simplicity and clarity with which the problems are discussed here." -Marcus Kracht, Universit├Ąt Bielefeld

"This book is not merely a guide to the most important topics in the area of argument structure. It is about understanding theories of argument structure - understanding them deeply. The book is a precious resource for novice linguists and experts alike." -Angelika Kratzer, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

"One of those rare books that will be of use both to the beginner and the specialist. It is a friendly guide through the difficult terrain of argument structure. Much more than a survey, it addresses foundational and current issues in the syntax and semantics of argument structure in an exemplarily clear-headed and even-handed way." -Rajesh Bhatt, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Experimental projects

  • Third Man (with Jeff Lidz, Angela He, Alexis Wellwood, and Rachel Dudley)
    Concerns the acquisition of transitive verbs (like steal) that seem to describe their event as having three participants. Intial reports have been presented at BUCLD38 (2013), PLC38 (2014), IASCL13 (2014). Here is the PLC Proceedings paper, along with the BUCLD poster and the PLC slides.

  • Submarine (with Ellen Lau, Michael McCourt and Jeff Green)
    Concerns the processing of rationale clauses controlled by implied 'agent' of a short passive (as in Two outfielders were traded to acquire a better pitcher). Here is the first report presented at the 27th CUNY (2014). An update is forthcoming in a talk at the 28th CUNY in March.

  • My teaching

    My CV